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Deal with Social Anxiety After Quarantine

You are not alone in feeling like your social skills have regressed during the COVID-19 pandemic. As social distancing restrictions ease and more people become fully vaccinated, social anxiety has been on the rise – and it's totally normal.

For people with social anxiety, the threat of a viral pandemic can induce anxiety. After a year spent in a cocoon of comfort, they may be afraid to interact with their peers.

Effects of Isolation

Social skills can atrophy just like muscles that are not used. If you are isolated from other people for an extended period of time, you will end up feeling awkward and unable to tolerate what used to feel mundane.

This phenomenon is not a mental disorder; rather, it’s a collective experience of those who are isolated due to the ill effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The human need for social contact is similar to the human need for food and water because it helps us to survive. Our survival was threatened by the elements, predators, etc., in ancient times, but the support of social systems helped us to live longer and therefore evolve further.

Although it's a little different for many people today, we all have the same basic need for companionship. Even the most shy or socially anxious person probably wants to reach out to others even though it can be hard sometimes.

Because such needs are so important, a lack of social contact can adversely affect our mental, emotional and physical well-being.

When you spend too much time alone, it can lead to real effects: feeling angry, tired, irritable, or sad. Even if you don’t consciously acknowledge that you are “lonely,” these other emotional reactions can be signs that you’ve been isolated for too long.

Signs of Social Awkwardness

Have you been worried about whether or not a long period of isolation has affected your ability to relate to people? Here are some potential signs of social awkwardness that may be relevant after being isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Not being able to understand subtle aspects of social situations or how to behave

  • Feeling like become oversensitive or hypervigilant

  • Overreacting to things that do not seem to bother others

  • Doing things that seem inappropriate

  • Wanting to be around other people but then finding it hard when you actually do spend time with them

  • Misinterpreting the intentions of others (e.g., thinking someone dislikes you or is angry at you because of the expression on their face)

  • Feeling more self-conscious than usual

  • Avoiding things that you used to enjoy such as phone calls or meeting up for activities

  • Making excuses for doing things such as saying that you are too tired

  • Choosing solitary activities over social activities (e.g., choosing to watch Netflix instead of answering a phone call from a friend)

How to Practice Social Skills

If you feel as though you are doomed to suffer this way forever, take heart. Just because things seem hard now doesn’t mean that they will feel this way forever. This contrasts with the pain of social interaction previously felt by those with social anxiety who thought everyone else had a secret that they didn’t have and felt as though they were a fish out of water; that they were doomed to suffer in this way forever.

When it comes to "re-entering society," most people do well if they stay close to the comforts of home and use the web as a resource for information about networking. However, if your closest friends are all incarcerated, you may have more trouble making good choices about which crowds to hang out with. The truth is that some people will fare better as they re-enter society than others. What are the determining factors that determine who will get back their social butterfly wings (or grow them if you never had them) and who will flounder, fail, and feel absolutely foolish?

If you are concerned about practicing your social skills, you might try to:

  • Maintain communication with other people even if it feels awkward (e.g., block out time each day to write an email, make a phone call)

  • Embrace being awkward instead of fighting against it by mentioning the elephant in the room

  • Make jokes about the situation (e.g., during a conversation at the water cooler, say something like “long time no see” as a joke)

  • Practice your listening skills by asking open-ended questions and paying attention to what is said

  • Start out with situations that feel safer to you (e.g., people you used to know well)

  • Practice for a limited amount of time at first (e.g., don’t throw yourself into a weekend getaway with a group of strangers at first)

  • Make being friendly the most important thing, since everyone is feeling some degree of awkwardness and could use your support and lightheartedness

Managing Anxiety Due to Social Awkwardness

If you are feeling socially anxious because of your social awkwardness, that feeling—though not good—is normal and will probably go away the more you integrate into society. However, if your anxiety is getting worse and you feel there’s no way out of it, then it could be a deeper mental health concern.

Below are some suggestions to deal with newfound or worsening social anxiety due to the perception that you have become socially awkward.

  • If you are avoiding and experiencing severe anxiety that is impacting your daily life, you probably should seek the help of a professional.

  • Mild or moderate social anxiety may be improved by gradually facing the things that are causing you anxiety until you feel more comfortable again.

  • Practice coping strategies for when you get into difficult situations, such as deep breathing, repeating positive affirmations or coping statements, or setting a time limit before you will excuse yourself.

  • Meditation and mindfulness can help if you find that your problem is mostly one of worry that carries you away and makes it hard to think of anything else.

  • Journaling can be a good way to get at the underlying emotions or triggers as you go about your day. Each day, free-write about how you felt and how things went. Look for patterns in your thoughts and feelings and try to identify triggers that make you feel worse so you can prepare to cope with them the next time you encounter them.

Finally, make sure to be kind to yourself because you are learning. You are dealing with a lot of unknowns, but interacting with people becomes easier once you understand some of the basic rules like social distancing protocols that keep people at an arm's distance. Those awkward moments were there before and will not go away, but embrace them for what they are and try not to let them get to you. This will help you glide past any stumbling blocks on your way to success.

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